Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Horse Cap

LOUISVILLE, KY — I’m writing from the Bluegrass State today, promoting the book, yada, yada. And get this: I stayed at a Best Western last night! I know, talk about moving up the social escalator. However, I had to drive by the Red Roof Inn that traumatized me during Derby Week. If I wanted to smell like smoke, leave with a film of impropriety on my skin, and feel, well, icky, I would’ve slept in a neighboring Dumpster (and save $750 and still have wireless!).

Last night I watched “Catching Hell”, the ESPN documentary on Steve Bartman. Great film about scapegoats, great film. During the commercials were ads for the 2011 Breeders’ Cup with the replay of Mike Smith’s choke job aboard Zenyatta last year. You can hear the tears in Trevor Denman’s voice. It was enough to get the Carryover pretty darn excited for the Breeders’ Cup, but also it got me thinking about my next Band-Aid column—how can I patch up the sport when I’m commissioner of horse racing.

I have at least one idea that would make the game infinitely more interesting, if nothing else. I call it the Horse Cap. It’s simple: cap the amount of horses trainers condition. Let’s set the bar at 100.

It gets hammered on the comments of columns like mine and others that trainers Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, Bill Mott, etc., dominate the trainer standings. Pletcher has over 200 horses; Asmussen has nearly as many if not more.

There are dozens upon dozens of capable and brilliant horsemen and women in this country who don’t get a chance at Grade 1-talent unless lightening strikes their barns. Who was John Servis, Tom Albertrani, Barclay Tagg and John Sherriffs until they had big horses comes their way? Compared to the BIG BOYS, they were unknowns, but they were no less skilled.

Take those 100 extra horses that Pletcher can longer train—Graded Stakes kind of talent—and now owners have to find the Phil Schoenthals, Chris Groves, and Robin Grahams of the world: extremely capable horse people who have junior varsity horses and are thus handicapped from the perspective of horse talent.

Look at Kathy Ritvo now. It takes a big horse to elevate her heart transplant story. She’ll get better stock thanks to Mucho Macho Man. How many other Kathy Ritvos are out there? Taggs? Servises? It’s a lot.

This will bring increased notoriety to the current fringe. Those Maryland trainers aren’t going to go anywhere. All of sudden their talented strings will inject their regions with better talent and pub. Think about what Smarty Jones did for the fans of Mid-Atlantic. There’d be more competitive balance among the trainers and there’d be more characters.

It’d be like the New England Patriots getting a roster of 250 players and the Bengals get a roster of 14.

What makes Derby Week so special is that there are the select few who “don’t belong.” The Ritvos, the Breens, the Kenneallys. What if these guys, by virtue of a united body, could claim more horses and thus better talent? They’d showcase that they are, in fact, as good, if not better, than the Mega Stables.

From an owner point of view, you’ll get better attention. The Pletchers and Asmussens simply can’t talk to all their clients. Sure, they do, but it’s a quick update. They’re CEOs. Sometimes you’d get better feedback from an amoeba.

One of the more affecting scenes I witnessed was during the 2009 Saratoga meet was when Asmussen led a fractious horse into the paddock between races. This gray horse jumped, bucked, hopped, threw his head, just a real good fella. Asmussen had the shank and danced around this horse like they were coupled figure skaters. He was trying to calm it down, school it, whatever. Here was Mega Trainer on the floor using his gift. How many times have you seen that? Even in the mornings? You haven’t. Shrink the stables and they’ll still get theirs, they may even have a better relationship with their owners and horses.

There’s room for more teams out there. Cap the horses. Free up character.

Brendan O'Meara is the author of "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year." Buy it now!

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Other Super Saturday

This past Saturday set up some nice racing, stakes races galore, one right after the other, in the rain no less. It was a scintillating day for anyone who loves to follow—for better or worse—this game of kings.

All this at lovely Laurel Park.

Saturday October 1 marked Laurel Park’s biggest day of racing: Maryland Million Day. It was Breeders’ Cup, Maryland edition.

It all started with the $100,000 Maryland Million Oaks run at a mile and won by Brushed By Love. It ended with the $150,000 Maryland Million Classic won by the odds-on favorite Eighttofasttocatch.

“This was our ‘A’ race,” said trainer Tim Keefe. “He’s been training like a good horse. We’ve worked hard on getting him to track the speed and today that turned out perfect. The five post didn’t hurt us either. He really finished down the lane. This horse loves Laurel Park. The older he gets the better he’s become.”

I wasn’t there, but if Preakness Day at nearby Pimlico is the rowdiest, and technically biggest day of Maryland racing, Maryland Million Day is the most refined. It reminds me of a Thursday at Saratoga. My only experience came five years ago while I was shadowing a special Maryland horseman named Phil Schoenthal. He won that day, a starter handicap with a horse named Busy Prospect, ridden by the then-eighteen-year-old Rosie Napravnik.

It’s a special day for Maryland racing, Maryland trainers, and Maryland-bred horses. Winning on that day made Schoenthal feel like a king, and he carted me around as if I were one of his eccentric owners (who else would be wearing torn corduroys and a black t-shirt and still be allowed into the VIP section for a meal?).

I was working on an as-of-yet unpublished narrative about being a young trainer’s apprentice, illustrating the slog that trainers with strings that couldn’t field a baseball team undergo as they dream of that elusive BIG HORSE.

Schoenthal didn’t have a horse this past Saturday, but he’s as good as any horseman and he’s certainly one of the best at placing his horses in spots to earn his owners some money.

Up north the likely 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace (also a town in, you guessed it, Maryland) smashed up on Grade 1-company in Beldame. But down in Maryland trainers like Rodney Jenkins, King Leatherbury, Mike Trombetta, Chris Grove, Benny Feliciano, Scott Lake, Gary Capuano, Mark Shuman, and Robby Bailes went to work. It may not have been super by NYRA’s standards, but it was pretty darn good.

There were no bombs at Laurel Park, but two $12.80 winners, a $15 winner. It was a day to feast on chalk if you were weaslely enough. Sounds like New York’s Super Saturday, which proved to be struck by some degree of long shot-Kryptonite.

As many people were quick to point out, the field sizes in New York were as big as Dobby the House Elf, but that’s weather and the ever-rich Breeders’ Cup just four weeks away.

Story lines, big characters, and big horses draw me to racing so it was especially intriguing to hear Mike Repole immediately point his Kelso winner Uncle Mo to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“I love the Classic,” Repole said. “In my opinion, if you run Uncle Mo in the Sprint, he’s the favorite. If you run Uncle Mo in the Dirt Mile, he’s the favorite. If you run him in the Classic, he’s probably going to be the favorite. I want to win the Classic. If Mo was in the Mile and won, and Stay Thirsty was in the Classic and finished third, it would be a decision I would regret for the rest of my life. Why not take two shots at a race everybody wants to win?”

Now, I doubt he’ll be the favorite—Havre de Grace will be—but he is, without question, a horse back from the dark side of the moon. He won his first race in half a year. You have to tip your fedora to Uncle Mo and to Todd Pletcher’s staff for getting this horse back into shape. He’s a Grade 1-horse, a BIG HORSE, that anyone would want, especially those guys who put on a nice show down in Maryland.

Lousiville Book Signing

I'll be signing books at Carmichael's Bookstore in Louisville, KY on Monday October 10 at 7 p.m. I'll have a friend with me. You might have heard of him: Calvin Borel. He'll be signing with me so come on down if you're in town.

Brendan O'Meara is the author of "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year." Buy it here.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

To Secure Peace

Super Saturday is shaping up to be New York’s single best day of racing in the calendar year. Five Grade 1s and a Grade 2 comprising an all-graded Pick 6. This is nearly a throwback to the original Breeders’ Cup.

Belmont Park’s Oct. 1 card lacks only a turf mile and juvenile races, otherwise you’re looking at the Baby Breeders’ Cup—minus the money, of course. Which is why it would be fun for a guy like me to watch if I wasn’t already working the Retail. Thanks for replays.

The New York Racing Association puts on some fine racing days: Belmont Stakes Day and Travers Day, to name two, but this Super Saturday is really stepping up to the gate.

Now, what it could also be setting up is an assault on the Breeders’ Cup. I’m not sure where Metallica lifted the lyric (possibly from “The Art of War”) “To secure peace, is to prepare for war.” After NYRA lost its bid again for the Breeders’ Cup and with flirtations of running its own rival card against the BC, Super Saturday may be a gathering of armies.

When the Breeders’ Cup awarded Santa Anita the 2012 Breeders’ Cup, NYRA President and CEO Charlie Hayward said, “Congratulations to Santa Anita, but we are disappointed that Belmont Park was not selected to host the 2012 Breeders’ Cup World Championships. The event was most recently held at Belmont in 2005, and since then, two different tracks – Churchill Downs and now Santa Anita – have hosted the Breeders’ Cup three times. We remain hopeful that Belmont will remain a serious option for the 2013 Breeders’ Cup.”

Secure peace ...

New York is the media capital of the Milky Way (unless there is a virulent Daily News somewhere beyond Polaris, of course). NYRA put together a card with so many star driven entities (just check out this link where you can click on the stars for a profile of each of the contenders) that it could be posturing like an NBC peacock.

They are the menacing cloud trespassing on the Breeders’ Cup. Sure, all the races Saturday are designated Win and You’re In, but can’t you see a distancing power move at play? Friends close, enemies closer?

If the Frizette and Champagne move to this day in 2012, then the pieces will be in place for an invasion.

Prepare for war ...

All it takes is a charismatic leader, a Stephen King-created Randall Flagg, to forge a road ahead. Mike Repole has been vocal about an elite day of racing to compete against the Breeders’ Cup.

“If I put my heart into it, I’ll turn the Breeders’ Cup into the [now defunct] ABA [American Basketball Association]. … This could be the end of the Breeders’ Cup. … I want an explanation for what they did [in choosing Santa Anita] and they’re not offering any,” said Repole, who first voiced his feelings in a Blood Horse blog post. “I guess that’s because it makes no sense. There’s no reason or justification for it. There should be an investigation over it. It’s just not right.”

This wouldn’t hurt horse racing. This might be the kind of move that could galvanize and unite it under the banner of one commissioner, one league, one set of rules. The Breeders’ Cup will be the parading Super Bowl of the sport—more so. But you can’t maintain that the Breeders’ Cup is “parading” when it ends up in two places over four years.

If the sport ever finds a certain degree of unity there should be a Breeders’ Cup track built in a temperate location. Treat the place like the Oscars. I’m talking a museum to the BC, a shrine to the BC, the world’s pinnacle sharpened on one place.

Until then, NYRA can push the limits. Belmont’s biggest strike is that running a mile and a quarter is a 1 ½ - turn race. It’s a bit cubist, a bit asymmetrical, a bit askew, but if Saint Liam can win it from the near-outside post, then it can’t be that bad.

Up on the horizon rests a face off, a stand. Now is the beginning.

Brendan O'Meara is the author of "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

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